Graham Nash: Rock star, visual artist, Renaissance man
“Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life”
By Graham Nash (Crown Archetype, $28)
David Crosby once called bandmate and friend Graham Nash “one of the most highly evolved people on the planet.” In his new memoir “Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life,” Nash comes across as a true Renaissance man, and a highly successful musician who has that rare quality of gratitude.
The memoir is also a wild ride. Nash, who helped start the British band The Hollies before meeting Crosby and Stephen Stills to become Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Neil Young), is not shy about sharing the excesses of the 1960s. Laurel Canyon in California, a haunt for many rock and folk musicians of the time, was the site of many parties, with “plenty of music, sex, dope, the whole enchilada,” Nash writes. Plenty of cocaine fueled the harmonies and melodies that Nash, Crosby et al made anthems of a generation. Nash’s discussion of Crosby’s descent into drug addiction in the 1980s is heartbreaking and frightening – making his recovery and recent release of new music a remarkable story of survival.
But Nash has not written a celebrity tell-all. Anyone interested in the history of American music, and how the British brought it back to us in the 1960s, will revel in Nash’s recollections of his early years. The Hollies modeled themselves on the Everly Brothers, and Nash recalls how he and bandmate Allan Clarke went to see the brothers perform in Manchester. They hung around after the show hoping to meet their idols. Nash approached the Everlys, who gave the band, then in its early years, encouragement. It was a moment that Nash said changed his life. “After that night, I swore to myself that if I ever became famous and met fans, I would talk to them like the Everly Brothers talked to me and validated my very being,” a practice he continues until this day.
It’s a cliché to believe that famous people came up poor, but Nash certainly did. He grew up in Manchester in the Salford neighborhood, in “council houses,” or public housing. “I found out later it was one of the worst slums in the north, maybe in all of England, but when I was growing up it was a poor but honest community. Everyone just trying to get by the best they could,” he writes. Nash’s father did time in jail after he gave Nash his first camera, not knowing he was buying stolen goods. His father, also a photographer, planted the seeds for Nash’s lifelong love of taking pictures.
Some of Nash’s photographs are included in “Wild Tales,” and readers who do not know about this side of his work will be fascinated with Nash’s growth as a visual artist. He is very much an autodidact who has taught himself art history and older processes of making photographic prints. He also paints, sculpts, does collage and works in other media. He brought his photographic and printmaking skills into the digital age, creating Nash Editions, a fine art print business. Nash and Mac Holbert (a friend and tour manager) bought an ink jet printer, then began the do-it-yourself process of modifying it to produce fine art prints in black and white on thick paper. The Epson company got interested in their machine, and teamed up with Nash and his associates. The original printer he and Holbert made is now in the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History. In typical self-deprecating fashion, Nash writes that “We changed the history of photography – just a little.”
Nash dedicated “Wild Tales” to his parents, and he has a touching tribute to his mom. After he became famous, Nash asked his mom why he had not been forced to “get a real job.” She replied, “‘Because, Graham, you are living the life I wanted for myself.’” She told him she had a good voice, wanted to be on the stage, but World War II happened, then marriage and children. After his mom died, Nash spread some of her ashes in Carnegie Hall, and on a few other world stages in tribute.
“She’d helped to fulfill my dreams,” Nash writes. “I couldn’t do much in return, but it was a gesture; it was payback.”
Graham Nash will sign copies of “Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life” at noon March 24 at The Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., Durham.